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Classic piece of Italian cinema
on 29 October 2004
Fellini's opening scene puts the stamp on this one: a helicopter flies over Roman ruins, a statue of Christ suspended beneath. A second helicopter stalks it, a journalist and photographer onboard. They fly on over new blocks of flats - ugly, functional buildings, dallying to wave to bathing beauties, men and women failing to communicate above the noise of the aircraft. An atmosphere of cynicism is established: Rome is a crumbling ruin, decadent, its peoples unable to talk to one another.
Set in 1950's Rome, La Dolce Vita follows the life of a journalist (Marcello Mastroianni), a man who can write great prose but whose work is devoted to the trivia of society gossip, the sensational, and celebrity hype: his life is empty and meaningless, filled only by sex, boredom, and flight from commitment. His girlfriend wants to marry him, but is driven to attempt suicide because of his philandering. He prefers, instead, to romp with the society figure, Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) on a whore's bed, or to flirt with a visiting Hollywood screen idol (Anita Ekberg).
Modelled on a Rome which had become an outpost of Hollywood, attracting many American actors, La Dolce Vita presents that unreal world which working class Italians could only glimpse through the pages of a new generation of celebrity, illustrated magazines. In Hollywood, the studios protected their stars and managed their publicity: in Rome, they were exposed to the local press - Mastroianni's ever-present photographer, Paparazzo, would give his name to the job. Indeed, two of the film's memorable scenes - Anita Ekberg dancing in the Trevi Fountain, and the striptease towards the end - were modelled on Ekberg's own, well-publicised exploits.
Throughout the film, Italian references are sparse. The real Italians are mere onlookers. Mastroianni drives an English sports car; a pianist delivers Bach's Toccata and Fugue; the characters drink whisky, gin, Coca Cola; Mastroianni's father reminisces about Parisian nightlife; many of the actors speak passages in English. Only the scooters, used by the paparazzi, are Italian. And there is an absence of Italian life: we meet a whore on the streets, a young girl working in a café, but otherwise the city is empty of working life. Only the clubs and bars are in full swing, and then only by night, peopled by the privileged.
Reference is, however, made to the peasants, to the superstition of the country people. Mastroianni reports on a claim that two children have seen the Virgin Mary. The kids are persuaded to re-enact their vision for the cameras. They do so with gusto, leading the crowd on a merry dance which culminates in a stampede. A man is trampled to death. For centuries before the illustrated magazines, the gullible masses could be fed hype and imagery! Now, it appears, the press has ousted the Church in orchestrating the spectacular.
The film is delivered in a series of scenes, often unlinked and disjointed, like the articles in a magazine - you open the pages and the subjects are exposed by the camera. Mastroianni rushes around, hardly ever staying at home, finding time to write only in an empty café, bemoaning the fact that he never saw his father as a child ... and now nearly missing him when the old man visits Rome. Only his successful, intellectual friend, Steiner, appears to offer any hope of stability, encouraging him to write, to use his talent, to abandon the "semi-fascist" scandal magazines for which he writes.
Yet Steiner is consumed with worries and doubts - the threat of the Cold War and imminent nuclear destruction haunts him. Steiner makes the only real reference to the existing political world - this is the 1950's, post-Fascist Italy, an Italy recovering from civil war, German invasion, American invasion, torn now between the collapse of the old order and the struggle for its political soul between Communism, Catholic Church, and Capitalism. It's an intensely political city ... yet one reduced to the trivia of the paparazzi.
Mastroianni, himself, has no values, no ideals, no political, moral or spiritual base. Beset by tragedy, he does not discover any sense of humanity or direction, but, instead, plunges further into decadence and dissipation. The film comes full circle. At its end, Mastroianni and his fellow party-goers discover some fishermen hauling a rotting "sea monster" up onto the shore. Christ, swinging beneath the helicopter, had created fishers of men. Now we have the partygoers carrying off some monstrous spectacle, symbol of the rotting society they inhabit, following it who knows where. Mastroianni turns to wave to the young girl across a stream, unable to hear her above the noise, still unable to communicate with women. He turns his back on her and follows the pack off to their next party, where the paparazzi will be competing to fish for images of men.
The film escaped the censorship which had dominated Italian culture for centuries, setting a new sense of libertarianism and a new, sexy image. Tame by modern standards, it nevertheless scandalised Italy ... while doing much to make Italy fashionable and a fashion leader! An intriguing film, a classic of European cinema, at nearly three hours in length it demands some concentration in following the subtitles and numerous asides.